Secession and international alliances go together

It is important to scrutinize the intellectual strength of libertarian ideas about international relations. Here are a few – admittedly only partly systematic- thoughts about the relation between secession and international relations. Or more precise: some libertarians are positive about secession, yet at the same time negative about international alliances. How does that relate?

Pleas for secession can be found in the works of Von Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe and other luminaries of libertarian thought, broadly defined. In an informative chapter on the issue, Mises-biographer Jörg Guido Hüllsman (at defined secession as the ‘one-sided disruption of (hegemonic) bonds with a larger organized whole to which the secessionists have been tied’. Recent examples are the bloody secessions of South Sudan or Eritrea. Yet the issue also remains topical in Western Europe, for example in Scotland. It is not my purpose to emphasize the practical failures and wars associated with secession. From a libertarian perspective the principal benefit of secession is that a group of sovereign individuals decide for themselves how and by whom they are governed, and in which type of regime this shall happen. So far, no problem.

Let’s assume a world where secessions take place freely, peacefully and more frequent than in the past twenty-five years, where the number of sovereign states just went up by approximately twenty recognized independent countries. The logical result will be the fragmentation of the world in numerous smaller states, or state-like entities, of different sizes, composed of different groups of people. Perhaps some of these states will comply to an anarcho-capitalist libertarian ideal, so with a strict respect for property rights and the use of military defense only for clear-cut violations of these rights by others. However, it is unlikely that all states will be characterized in this way. Consequently, there remain a lot of causes for international conflict and war. For example, as there are more borders, there are also potentially more border disputes, about natural resources, water, stretches of land, et cetera. Of course humans are not angels, and no libertarian ever claims they will be. It simply means none of the other causes of war are perpetually eradicated in a world of free secession either.

So how to defend oneself in such situation, particularly when your state is much smaller than one or more other states in the vicinity? In such a situation you are unable to defend yourself against the most viable threats. Even if you declare yourself a neutral state it is unlikely this will always be respected. After all, it takes at least two to tango in international politics. Of the many possibilities to defend your property rights and sovereignty, the negotiation of agreements with other countries, or joining an international alliance seems logical and potentially beneficial (of course depending on the precise terms). It would amount to a system of multiple balances of power around the globe, very much like for example former Cato Institute scholar Ted Galen Carpenter favored for the current world. Surely, this would not be ideal, and would not be able to eradicate war either. Yet it will prevent many wars and safeguard the liberties and property rights of the participants.

This differs significantly from the pleas by people who simultaneously favor secession while calling for a non-interventionist foreign policy without alliances, such as Rothbard, Ron Paul (see for example in a column), or many contributors on

Admittedly, most of these anti-alliance commentaries are directed against particular parts of current US foreign policy. However, it is still fair to demand theoretical consistency. Either these writers overlook there might be an problem, or they choose to ignore it. Still it is important to acknowledge there is an issue here. It is too simple to reject international alliances while embracing secession at the same time.

10 thoughts on “Secession and international alliances go together

  1. Two small additions I would like to make here. First, I would question the conclusion that international alliances stop wars. Alliances such as you propose were one of the direct causes of the first world war which did much and more to solidify the power structure of the state in the 20th century. That war also was one of the (if not THE) primary cause of the founding of two of the most despotic regimes in world history. The Nazis and the Soviets.

    I would make the argument that it isn’t military alliances at all that have slowed war in the late 20th to 21st century but rather the advent of nuclear weapons. Organizations such as NATO are only effective *because* of the threat of nuclear war. It is quite plain that no war between nuclear powers will happen in the foreseeable future and all wars since the second world war were fought with one of the powers not having nuclear weapons.

    Second, to be considered truly libertarian any alliances would have to be universally defensive in nature and limited to repelling foreign invaders from “domestic” land. This includes the difficult task of not extending the war into enemy land for any “collateral” damage to civilians or their property is, to the libertarian, murder or theft/vandalism respectively. This would also include preemptive strikes and violence enforced embargoes.

  2. Thanks Adam. I think you are right about the special role of nuclear weapons in international politics. During the Cold War they have prevented lots of warfare, because using them was essentially too insane an idea to the leaders of West and East. Note though this was very much a alliance-dominated world. The point I try to make is about the inevitablity of the formation of alliances in a world dominated by states or state-like entities, also after secession. The particular weaponry theese alliances have at their disposal is of secondary order, but could indeed play an important role. I donot argue that alliances will always prevent war, that is impossible. I do try to iluminate to libertarians alliances are not as bad as normally pictured by Ron Paul and others. Alliances often prevent war and ensure peace and liberty, as has been the case with NATO and Western Europe for the past 65 years or so.

    Your point about the libertarian nature of alliances is more troublesome I think. My criticism of some libertarian ideas about international relations is precisely the idea that it suffices to be defensive and to protect your own lands. I think that is too simple, to America-centred and it leaves out too many other situations you have to deal with in international politics, whether you like it or not. Classical liberals such as Hayek were far more realistic on these issues.

    There is a whole academic industry about World War I and II, also about their causes. At present I am reading Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to War in 1914. It makes clear the causes are multifold and certainly not just a case of the detrimental effects of international alliances.

  3. Dr van de Haar,

    This is an excellent post and one I’ve been meaning to to respond to for quite some time (it’s traveling season here in the States). I think you highlight well the difference in opinion, on foreign policy, between libertarians/classical liberals in Europe and the United States. Alliances are sometimes a good option, and it pains me to see American libertarians dogmatically reject alliances in a spirit of reaction.

    At the same time, European libertarians have yet to acknowledge a problem as old as Thucydides’ writings on the Delian League: that of free-riding. As NATO stands today, the European partners in the alliance (save for the UK and some newer, Eastern members) have been taking the US taxpayer for a ride.

    This is a small injustice in the grand scheme of things, but it is an injustice nonetheless. The problem of alliances and free-riding extends far beyond NATO, of course. This is why I argue that alliances should be eschewed in favor of federations. I got this this idea from the likes of Ludwig von Mises, Adam Smith, and FA Hayek. The logic behind opting for federation over alliance runs something like this: if two or more countries can pledge mutual military aid to each other, but cannot abide forging closer economic and political ties, then the likelihood of each member of the alliance adhering to an agreed-upon charter is going to be very low.

    Federation gets around this problem. Isolationism and empire do not.

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